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Eat Smart, Feel Better: Nutritional Choices that Boost Gut and Brain Health

A young bearded man, holding an orange shopping basket, examines a container of cherry tomatoes in the refrigerated section of a supermarket, surrounded by shelves stocked with vibrant, colorful healthy food options.
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Blog post written by Susie Roberts, MS, RDN, LD. Susie is a trainer with Employee & Family Resources

Gut health is grabbing headlines and piquing scientists’ interest— and for good reason! Research is revealing its critical role in our overall health. Inside your digestive system, there’s a complex ecosystem: the gut microbiome. It consists of trillions of microorganisms: bacteria, viruses, and fungi. These tiny inhabitants play a significant part in how your body functions.

What you eat, your lifestyle, your age, and even your genes influence this microbiome. Remarkably, this microscopic world not only aids digestion but also impacts everything from your brain function to your heart health and central nervous system, influencing everything from how you think to how you feel.

So, how can you nurture your gut microbiome and feel the positive benefits throughout your body? Let’s dive in!

What Lives in Your Gut and Why It Matters

Most of the helpful bacteria, viruses, and fungi that make up your gut microbiome live in your large intestine, also known as the colon. The key to reaping the benefits of a healthy biome today and as you age? Microbiome diversity!

What Foods are Beneficial to Your Gut?

Foods rich in prebiotics and probiotics keep your gut in good shape. In addition to the basics— a healthy balance of fruits, vegetables, proteins, whole grains, dairy, and healthy fats— try to incorporate at least one prebiotic and probiotic food each day. These nutrients are essential to building and maintaining a healthy, diverse gut bacteria necessary to making your digestion run smoothly and fortifying your overall health.

Prebiotics

Prebiotics are a type of fiber that your body doesn’t digest. Instead, they travel through your small intestine to their final destination: the large intestine. Once there, they feed your gut biome’s healthy bacteria.

Where to find prebiotics: You can get prebiotics from foods like:

  • Garlic
  • Onions, leeks, and asparagus
  • Bananas, apples, and avocados
  • Oats and flaxseed

Probiotics

Probiotics are foods that are actually full of live, healthy bacteria. Eating them boosts the number of good bacteria in your gut.

Where to find probiotics: You can get probiotics from probiotic-rich foods like:

  • Yogurt and kefir
  • Sauerkraut and kimchi
  • Tempeh
  • Certain cheeses that have live cultures

Considering Prebiotic and Probiotic Supplements?

You might have noticed a variety of prebiotic and probiotic supplements in the aisles at your local grocery store. Buyer beware! Unlike medicines, these supplements aren’t subject to FDA approval before hitting the shelves— often, the benefits listed on the bottle are far from guaranteed.

How to Choose Supplements Safely

If you decide to try a supplement, make sure it’s third-party certified. This means an independent lab has tested the product and confirmed that what’s on the label matches what’s in the bottle. This helps you know the supplement contains the listed ingredients.

How Food Affects Your Mind and Mood

What you eat (or do not eat) influences how you think and feel. Certain nutrients like healthy fats found in avocado, nuts, and olive oil are necessary for your body to produce hormones and your brain to synthesize neurotransmitters that work to lower stress, anxiety, and depression.

Nutrients That Boost Your Gut Health + Mental Well-Being:

  • Magnesium: Helps your body create energy, balance hormones, and regulate your body’s functions. Eat more: avocados, beans, dairy, bananas, leafy greens, nuts, and whole grains.
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids (DHA and EPA): Essential for brain health, these fats help your nerve cells (the brain/body messengers) function and neurotransmitter regulation, helping lessen stress and anxiety. Good sources: fatty fish like salmon and mackerel as well as walnuts, flax seeds, and chia seeds.
  • B Vitamins:  Important for your nervous system (your body’s communication network consisting of brain, spinal cord, and nerves), metabolism, red blood cell formation (delivers oxygen and transports waste), and improved cognition, and can help manage stress hormone levels. Find them in: leafy greens, asparagus, beans, meat, dairy, enriched grains, and seafood.
  • Vitamin C: Not having enough can affect brain chemicals like dopamine (associated with happiness, focus, and calmness) and serotonin (associated with satisfaction, pleasure, and motivation), which influence mood. Vitamin C is a key antioxidant that fights inflammation. Where to find it: citrus fruits, vegetables, and their juices.
  • Vitamin D:  Plays a role in regulating your nervous system. Sources include: trout, salmon, fortified milk and cereals, and egg yolks.
  • Zinc: Essential for neurotransmission (or carrying chemical messages) and maintaining brain cell membrane integrity (important for protection and regulation). A zinc deficiency may lead to trouble managing stress and anxiety. Get more from:  beans and peas, beef, dairy products, fortified cereals, nuts, poultry, shellfish, and whole grains.

Simple Steps to Boost Your Health and Happiness

Want to feel your best both physically and mentally? Here are some easy tips to follow:

1. Eat Well

Boost your energy levels by consuming whole and minimally processed foods. Add foods that feed and grow your good gut bacteria, like those with prebiotics or probiotics.

2. Drink Up

Keep yourself hydrated mainly with water, but milk and 100% fruit juices are good too.  Aim to avoid drinks with a lot of added sugar.

3. Treat Yourself

Sometimes a little comfort food is just what you need. Whether it’s the taste, the texture, or the memories they bring back, treat yourself now and then.

4. Check In

Monitor your mental health over time through:

  1. Self-Reflection: Ask yourself some hard questions about how you’re feeling, what emotions you’re experiencing, and if there are areas for concern. Give yourself enough time and space to process  what’s going on emotionally; allow adequate time to answer honestly.
  2. Daily Mood Scale: Regularly assess your feelings using a scale of 1 to 10 – make sure to do this at the same time each day for consistency and to help you pinpoint any patterns.
  3. Keep a Journal: Write down your daily mood (high and low), feelings, monitor your sleep patterns, note how you’re caring for yourself, your social activities, and your physical activity. This journal can help you track changes over time.
  4.  

By following these steps, you can ensure you’re taking good care of both your body and mind, and track your  growth over time!

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